Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Poetic ponderings

Edgar Allen Poe called poetry "the rhythmical creation of Beauty". Is that not lovely?

But sometimes, Beauty can be a real beast, and I mean that in two senses:

First off, a poem need not be about something attractive in order to be a thing of beauty.

Read, for instance, this beautiful poem by Jack Gilbert about grief following the loss of his wife, Michiko. You will notice that he never mentions grief by name, and that this poem begins with a simile that turns into an extended metaphor. And I predict that you will love this poem as it breaks your heart, and as you feel its weight settle into the box you already carry, and that you will see its beauty, even though it is not about something most people would deem beautiful

Michiko Dead
by Jack Gilbert

He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly

Read the rest here.

Poems can be about loss and fear, about war and rape, about horror and shame, just as they can be about love and hope, about flowers and clouds, about joy and pride. When done well, however, they are a form of Beauty, just as Poe said.

Second, it can be a bear to achieve "rhythmical creation of Beauty."

I have spent the past three days in false starts and erasures of a poem intended for the Shakespeare poems. I haven't given up on this poem yet, but I'm stepping away from it for now because it's to the point where I am working so hard to shove the poem together that it will never become a thing of Beauty; the poem and I are too angry with each other, I think it best for us both to cool down for a bit and start again. Perhaps she and I will get along better after we take a break from one another.

Most everyone I know seems to acknowledge that first drafts of novels aren't usually pretty. But neither are first drafts of poems - even metrical poems. Want proof? Go to the Manuscripts section of this page about Visual Aids for Jonathan C. Glance's English class and have a look at William Blake's page. Or Byron's. Or Keats. Or even Elizabeth Barret Browning, and hers is pretty clean. Sometimes getting things in order is a beastly undertaking. But when it is done, what a thing of Beauty it can be. Read, for instance, the final version of Blake's poem, "The Tyger" from Songs of Experience, with its wonderful trochaic metre and end rhymes, and ask yourself "Is this not Beauty, rhythmically created?":

The Tyger
by William Blake

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

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